The Bethel Park School District superintendent has sent an open letter to the community to urge the school board and teachers to come to a compromise on issues that have left the district's 375 teachers without a contract for the past 2 1/2 years.
"Up to this point, I have been conspicuously silent in this regard," superintendent Nancy Aloi Rose wrote the letter Friday. "As the superintendent of schools, I am in the peculiar position of advising the board as well as leading the staff. Sometimes, those two roles are in conflict."
Despite more than 50 negotiating sessions, a six-week strike by teachers in fall 2010 and nonbinding arbitration, the district and the Bethel Park Federation of Teachers have been unable to find middle ground, Ms. Aloi Rose said.
The major sticking points remain salary, benefits, class size and teachers' schedules. Teachers have been working under the terms of their most recent pact, which expired June 30, 2010.
"I feel their frustration," Ms. Aloi Rose said of the teachers. "Salary is a validation of the work that one does. It is symbolic of the appreciation of the community that you serve. Up to this point in time, our teachers had an expectation of generous raises, tremendous health care coverage, and comfortable retirement benefits. The expectation has been that once you are hired by a school system, as long as you performed in a satisfactory way and chose not to leave, you were guaranteed secure lifelong employment."
But the landscape of education in Pennsylvania has changed in recent years, the superintendent noted, through a massive increase in pension costs, deep cuts in state and federal subsidies, and the loss of students to cyber schools.
Although the district has so far been able to avoid furloughs and program cuts, state regulations, such as Act 1, make it impossible for the school board to raise property taxes above a state-mandated cap to pay for increased costs and salaries.
In the district, 75 percent of the households do not have school-aged children and 34 percent of the population consists of retired people on fixed incomes, so it's unlikely many in the community would tolerate tax increases, placing the district between "the proverbial rock and a hard place," she said.
Still, waiting so long for a new labor contract is detrimental for all the households in the community, not just those with school-aged children, union President Diann Smith said.
"A good educational system brings value to everyone in the community," said Ms. Smith, who also noted that more than 100 teachers have been with the district for at least 17 years and many of them live in Bethel Park. "We all gain when schools are strong."
To curb costs, Ms. Aloi Rose said the district has streamlined administrative tasks, reduced its number of employees through attrition, and asked families to pay for some student supplies along with fees to participate in extracurricular activities.
"We continue to do as many things as we can that are fiscally prudent without negatively impacting our students," Ms. Aloi Rose wrote. "However, as time goes on, it becomes more difficult to avoid looking at programs that could be cut to help balance the budget."
Ms. Aloi Rose said she believes the only way to resolve the conflict is through an honest dialogue and compromise from both sides.
"Other districts have done what is necessary to keep their districts running and their employees working," she wrote. "Their administrations, school boards, and employees have come together to agree to concessions on wages, benefits, and even working conditions. If we are to survive as a public institution of education, we will need to do the same."
Ms. Smith agreed with Ms. Aloi Rose about other districts in the area, which have resolved teacher contracts without layoffs or deep program cuts.
"Other districts in the South Hills were faced with the same problems and they've been able to solve their issues," she said. "My question is why can't we do the same, after 35 months without a contract?"
Ms. Smith addressed the school board at a meeting last month, expressing frustration with the lack of progress. She said the two sides have recently participated in negotiating sessions, including one last week and one in November. No new sessions are scheduled, she said.
The union also has been staging informational pickets in front of the administration building before events, such as school board meetings, to remind residents that they still have no contract.
"The federation has been committed to working for solutions," she said. "We have come to the table with compromises."
Janice Crompton: firstname.lastname@example.org.